Why ‘Run the World’ Starz embraces ‘Sex and the City’ likeness


There’s a scene in “Run the World” — Starz’s comedy series about the personal and professional lives of four women in New York — in which Ella, a writer, is confused after running into her ex-boyfriend. Though they’ve been broken up for years, she feels drawn to him because, well, “He’s my Big.”

A friend disputes this comparison to “Sex and the City” narrator Carrie Bradshaw’s on-again, off-again paramour, played by Chris Noth. “Big was tall, rich and had a driver. If you’re going to perpetually humiliate yourself for a man, he better be tall, rich and have a driver. There’s a very clear, well-established pop culture road map for this!”

These lines get in front of “Run the World’s” almost inevitable comparisons to the iconic HBO series, which has been admired for its trailblazing focus on female sexuality at the same time that it’s been criticized for featuring just one Black female character in its six-season run. The connection even runs to the fashions, always at the heart of “Sex and the City’s” appeal: The ambitious, accomplished quartet of Black women in “Run the World” are impeccably dressed by costume designer Tracy L. Cox and consultant Patricia Field, both of whom worked on “Sex and the City”).

“At first I was like, that’s annoying, because this show is its own thing,” said series creator Leigh Davenport. “But I’ve really come to embrace it. I mean, ‘Sex and the City’ became a global phenomenon. If you see us as the Black ‘Sex and the City,’ — like, yes, this is how fabulous and dynamic and messy and complicated and incredibly full we are — then give us the ‘Sex and the City’ treatment: six seasons and two movies!”

The cast and creatives of "Run the World" on a New York stoop.

Showrunner Yvette Lee Bowser, left, Amber Stevens West, Bresha Webb, creator Leigh Davenport, Corbin Reid and Andrea Bordeaux, pictured in Harlem, where the series is set.

(Cara Howe / Starz)

But to consider “Run the World” merely a retread of “Sex and the City” with Black women would be selling it short. For one, the Starz series gives its main foursome equal billing: Amber Stevens West as an investment banker who is planning her wedding; Renee Ross as an ad executive who is contemplating divorce; Corbin Reid as an academic who is hiding her relationship; and Andrea Bordeaux as the aforementioned writer who is mending a broken heart. And none of them are as thoughtless as Bradshaw often was.

“To have a real friend, you have to be a real friend, right?” said showrunner Yvette Lee Bowser. “In each episode, they find their way through dilemmas by truly supporting each other. They don’t hesitate to reach out to each other, and they don’t wait for you to collapse to catch you.

“We wanted to depict behavior that we’ve experienced and that we’d like to see more of in the world,” she continued. “If anyone watching doesn’t have friendships like these, I hope that the show is an encouragement to seek them out, because they are essential.”

Unlike Carrie and her income from sporadic newspaper columns, Ella — a fictionalized version of Davenport, the former editorial director of HelloBeautiful.com — has endured a career setback and is now hustling the celebrity gossip beat in the digital age. “It’s a little lowbrow compared to what she pictured herself doing,” said Bordeaux, who plays Ella. “She’s in that relatable situation where all of her plans have crashed and burned, so she’s letting go of the life she thought she’d have.”

A woman in a blue fur stole sits at a desk in front of a gallery wall.

“Living Single” star Erika Alexander plays Ella’s blunt editor.

(Cara Howe / Starz)

But Ella enjoys a key advantage over Carrie: Her jaded editor, played by “Living Single” legend Erika Alexander, is deliciously blunt and generous with wisdom. “It’s fun to write a character who looks at the experiences of the main characters as if they’re in her rearview mirror,” said Bowser, who herself has become a mentor to Davenport. “She’s the one who’s always telling Ella to stop getting in her own way, which people often do and don’t realize.”

And though “Sex and the City” depicted numerous Manhattan neighborhoods, it steered clear of Harlem, where all eight episodes of “Run the World” are set. “Harlem is usually the setting of crime-centric movies and historical stories when, really, it’s this vibrant, beautiful, very connected community of predominantly Black people, having fun and living life,” said Davenport.

Capturing these lively tableaux while staying COVID-safe last fall was a challenge that, Bowser hopes, pays off beyond the fictional storylines. “We’re depicting these women free and out in the world just as we’re all coming out of this time of tremendous upheaval and uncertainty,” she said of the pandemic.

“I hope this show acts like an elixir for isolation: It inspires people to get out and get back to not just what feels normal, but also what is most fulfilling for their lives.”

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